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$20,000 may be missing
The school district and Dade City police are investigating one case; other discrepancies remain.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 31, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - About $20,000 collected from athletic events at Pasco High School over the last two years appears to be missing, and district officials have asked the Dade City Police Department to investigate.
"We gathered all the information we could. Then that information was submitted" to the police, assistant superintendent Olga Swinson said Tuesday. "They will determine whether they are going to continue with pressing charges and so forth."
Swinson confirmed the investigation after a St. Petersburg Times reporter relayed concerns raised by the district's former staff auditor of internal funds, Karen LaRochelle, who resigned earlier this month. LaRochelle said she was frustrated with the seeming lack of attention to her reports of mishandling of cash accounts throughout the county.
"The more I dug, the more I found," she told the Times. "I tried my best in my position to do what I could do, and obviously I couldn't make it happen. I just feel more people need to be made accountable."
LaRochelle said Pasco High had no gate receipts in the bank for soccer or highly successful and popular baseball. She also found discrepancies at Land O'Lakes and River Ridge high schools.
The Land O'Lakes High case, which involved about $20,000 as well, was turned over to the Sheriff's Office in September. Detectives discovered that $929 was missing, and another $18,968 was not deposited appropriately but later was found.
The school's bookkeeper resigned after being placed on administrative leave. But detectives did not find any evidence to file charges, sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin said.
The district does not yet have enough information to go to law enforcement in the case of River Ridge, where Swinson acknowledged her department is conducting an investigation into sports-related funds such as concessions. When the concerns first arose, she said, the district did remove the business manager as a first step.
Swinson rejected the notion that her department took any allegations of financial misdeeds as less than serious.
"Since I've been here, we have never ignored those," said Swinson, a former state auditor who once held the district's internal auditing job.
It's just that the wheels often turn slowly, she said. If someone makes a charge, the district sends teams to investigate. Just finding a failure to follow established procedures, however, is not enough to bring to the police, she added. Auditors need to have hard evidence, which isn't always readily available - especially when dealing with cash accounts and sometimes spotty records.
Also, there's plenty of opportunity. Every school has internal accounts, and hundreds of employees theoretically could have access to some school-related cash. It's not just true in Pasco.
Just this week, a cafeteria manager at Vero Beach High in Indian River County was suspended pending an investigation into a missing $10,000. Earlier this year, a Tampa Chamberlain High teacher was arrested on charges of stealing nearly $10,000 from the senior class, which she was advising.
And late last year, Tammi Wingrove, a Wesley Chapel High booster club parent, was charged with stealing more than $20,000 from the club. She's now repaying the money.
The fact that such cases get resolved proves that when the district has enough evidence, it moves ahead, Swinson said.
"They are dealt with appropriately, as we find them," she said.
LaRochelle acknowledged that she might have become impatient at the pace of the process.
"I never saw any conclusions to anything, and it just felt as though it wasn't seriously being looked at," she said.
But that doesn't mean the issue is less important, she added: "There's a lot more than they're catching."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.